An access panel is a building component used to provide easy access to mechanical and electrical systems. These units may be installed in a wall or ceiling to allow for maintenance and repair of ductwork, wires, pipes, and other equipment within the building. Different types of panels can be installed during construction, or added later in retrofit applications.
The various types of access panels can be categorized based on the material each is made from. Steel and aluminum units are the most common, particularly in commercial applications. Plastic or vinyl units may also be used, and are commonly found in the home. These panels can be pre-finished by the manufacturer or painted upon installation to match the surrounding décor. Some types of access panels are even available with a decorative finish, and may have molded panels similar to a door.
Some access panels include special features such as louvers or locks. Simple twist locks are often used to keep the panel closed, while keyed cylinder locks are added when security is a major concern. Most types of access panel units are available in standard sizes, though custom panels are also available.
One of the most important criteria for comparing different types of access panels involves the fire rating of each panel. When installed in a fire-rated partition or ceiling, an access panel must be equipped with a label showing its fire rating. These labels certify that the panel has been tested to resist combustion for a specific period of time. The panel should have the same fire rating as the surrounding wall or ceiling.
Builders can choose from several different techniques when installing these panels. Some models simply snap into a hole in the drywall without the use of fasteners, while others must be framed and held in place by screws. All access panels must be slightly smaller than the wall opening to provide sufficient clearance for the panel and frame.
An access panel may be surface-mounted or recessed into the wall, depending on the preference of the builder or homeowner. These panels may consist of single or double-leaf openings, and may open out towards the user or in towards the wall. When used on an exterior opening, installers should use a type of access panel designed to hold up against rain, wind, and other elements. Galvanized or stainless steel units can withstand rust and corrosion, and should be equipped with drip caps and gasketing to keep electrical and mechanical components dry and protected.